John Steinbeck's Family Files Complaint Against L.A. Agent

John Steinbeck - H 2014
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John Steinbeck - H 2014

The son and granddaughter of the late John Steinbeck on Friday filed a complaint with the California Labor Commission against the RWSG Literary Agency and agent Geoffrey Sanford. It's the latest volley in a 14-year battle over rights to the works of the author of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and others.

The complaint charges that RWSG and Sanford are not currently licensed agents under California law and are also not currently licensed as lawyers. The complaint charges that one or the other is necessary for them to sell or license Steinbeck's works for movies, theater or TV shows.

RWSG, based in Los Angeles, is acting as a sub agent to a New York literary agency, McIntosh & Otis, which was Steinbeck's longtime agent. They have negotiated at least one deal, with DreamWorks for the right to do a remake of The Grapes of Wrath that was negotiated in 2013.

The Paladin Group, a Santa Barbara, California, company created by Thomas Steinbeck, an author and only living son of John Steinbeck, and granddaughter Blake Smyte (daughter of Steinbeck's younger son, John Steinbeck IV, who is deceased), filed the complaint, according to Gail Knight. She represents Paladin and is the wife of Thomas Steinbeck.

Knight told The Hollywood Reporter that while there are multiple parties involved in the ownership of the rights, RWSG has no right to make any deal without consulting with the family and getting their agreement, and they do not have that consent.

"The Steinbecks do not want to halt a deal for Grapes of Wrath," said Knight. "They are only asking for proper representation and to be treated with some semblance of fairness and decorum."

Sanford declined comment, but L.A. attorney William Briggs, speaking on behalf of Sanford and for the RWSG Agency, says this is only the latest attempt to circumvent the real rights holders, who are the heirs of Elaine Scott, John Steinbeck's third wife.

When Steinbeck died in 1968, he left the bulk of his estate to Elaine. She died in 2003 and left all the rights to her heirs, who are now known as the Scott family.

Knight says that the author's heirs still have some rights under the law as the blood relatives, even if they were not left the legacy of the works.

In the ensuing legal battles, a federal court in New York in 2009 upheld the Scott's rights and those of McIntosh & Otis to continue to act as the agent for Steinbeck's works.

Knight says Thomas Steinbeck has tried to fire McIntosh & Otis, whom he has never met, but lost that legal battle as well.

There were appeals by the family, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear them, so the lower court ruling for the Scotts was left intact.

While Briggs admits the Steinbeck family has the right to a portion of the money generated by any sales or licenses, they do not have any consultation rights. Those belong to the Scott family alone.

Briggs also says the complaint misunderstands California law. He says while an agent (and he insists RWSG is a licensed agent) must have a license to get employment for writers or other talent, there is no rule that they must be licensed to sell rights to remake the author's works. The Steinbeck family, says Briggs, "have no say in how the properties are exploited."

Knight disagrees and states the family will continue to seek to exercise their rights. That may include filing an action that would effectively renew the rights to East of Eden when the current copyright expires, which Knight notes will happen in the near future.

UPDATE 10/10 at 4:30 p.m. pst - article updated to add comment from Knight about Grapes of Wrath being developed by DreamWorks.